SCMP Saturday, October 7, 2000


Proposals will gag presenters and muffle good radio

Without prior consultation with members of the trade, the Broadcasting Authority recently issued a draft code of practice on programme standards to tighten regulations on how the electronic media operates.
Most of the suggested changes are either unfair or impractical. They followed on the heels of another official attempt to cleanse the print media, which has been flatly rejected by the industry as an unwelcome government move to undermine press freedom.
It remains a puzzle why the authority wants to tighten its grip on the media at this juncture. It affirms in the preamble of the document that it has the legal authority to penalise the station licensees who have failed to comply with its code of practice.
Instead of targeting the programme hosts, producers or other frontliners, the draft amendments are aimed primarily at the licensees. The authority insists that the licensees should bear the ultimate editorial responsibility for what goes on air. On the other hand, the hosts, commentators and callers to phone-in shows are only supposed to be fair, and there will not be any penalty on them even if they fail to do so.
Programmes in which hosts and contributors voice their own opinions will be subject to particularly stringent controls. It would mean a host would have to state, every 30 minutes, that the views he expresses are his own.
Article 29 seeks further to bind presenters to disclose the existence of any commercial agreement, arrangement or understanding, whether committed to writing or not, for which they receive a benefit in addition to their payment by the licensee.
The licensee will have to keep a register of such agreements for inspection by the authority upon request. When the impartiality of a programme is questioned, the licensee will have to ensure that presenters refrain from discussing issues in which they may have a conflict of interest. Alternatively, a disclosure announcement needs to be made at the time of broadcast.
As a host of such a personal-view programme on Commercial Radio, I have made clear that radio hosts should declare their interests on the spot so as to ensure a fair public debate. It is irresponsible for hosts not to do so by hiding behind the lame excuse that they have already lodged their interests with the station management.
It is my consistent position that hosts should declare their interests clearly. This has been generally accepted. The only bone of contention is whether this should be enforced by government intervention.
It is common sense that all radio licensees and managers take into account a host's personal integrity, credibility and potential conflicts of interest before that person is hired for a talkback show. The licensees will have to fire or take other action if the host does anything improper. The audience acts as an additional safeguard. Listeners will abandon a show if they believe its hosts are not honest and have a hidden agenda. Such hosts are doomed to lose a most valuable asset - their reputation.
So there is already an existing built-in system to ensure fairness and impartiality on the airwaves, and there is no compelling reason why the Government should take things into its own hands.
It is virtually impossible to deal with this problem by enacting yet more rules and regulations. Holding the licensee alone responsible is just not the right form of medicine.
A more sensitive topic that the authority has not dwelt on is the proliferation of financial programmes that can give rise to conflicts of interest. On a daily basis listeners are given all sorts of advice on how to speculate on the market. This presents a difficult grey area that warrants further debate. The Securities and Futures Commission rather than the Broadcasting Authority, which has no expertise in the intricacies of the subject, should tackle the situation.
Market regulators in Canada and the United States have devised a comprehensive set of rules and regulations against insider trading. Commentators and writers on stock subjects are barred from buying and selling shares. Hong Kong has much to learn from the North American model. There is, however, no room for the Broadcasting Authority to intervene in this regard.
Conflicts of interest may occur elsewhere in the industry. Record companies are said to have devised a "wine and dine" strategy for disc jockeys and music TV producers to promote their products. Rumours go as far as suggesting that some companies even reserve nightclub suites on a permanent basis to entertain media personalities who can help make or break an album. Hosts of travel, movie and even cookery programmes may also encounter similar situations.
Should participants, callers and guests on talkback shows be regulated as well? Should they be required to declare their interests before they go on air? How can interests be defined? Should a host declare his occasional appearance in media-skills training sessions? Should he tell how he obtained his Jockey Club membership or places in elite schools for his children? And how about shares or other investment vehicles?
Self-regulation is the best way for the media to maintain its fairness and impartiality. Public opinion, rather than government interference, is the best line of defence against programme hosts abusing their positions and influence.
I have been telling the foreign press that Hong Kong has continued to enjoy freedom of expression since the handover. Yet, I will have to change my answer if the authority's ill-considered package is endorsed. A big brother government image will do much more harm to the SAR than the members of the Broadcasting Authority can imagine.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( ) is a broadcaster and former publisher.